UK citizens' assembly wants 'fair' path to 2050 net-zero emissions goal

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 10 September 2020 09:59 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A cyclist rides past an electric public bus on the day that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan outlined plans to place a levy on the most polluting vehicles in London, Britain, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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In its advice to parliament, the panel says that freedom of choice and consistent government support for climate action are crucial

(Adds comment from business minister, report launch)

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Sept 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Taxes on frequent fliers, more wind and solar power, and better protection for nature should be key policies in Britain's push to meet its promise to cut emissions to net zero by 2050, a citizens' assembly advised the country's lawmakers on Thursday.

But its final recommendations in a report to parliament did not back nuclear power, efforts to capture and store climate-changing carbon emissions, or limits on driving and flying.

The assembly said future changes should follow principles of fairness - particularly for those less able to adapt - as well as freedom of choice, and strong, consistent government leadership on climate action with cross-party support.

"They didn't want policies to change with every successive government," noted Chris Shaw, parliamentary director for the Climate Assembly UK, a 108-member panel created to provide citizen input on meeting Britain's climate change goals.

Alok Sharma, Britain's business minister and president of the now-delayed COP26 U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, said parliament would look at the findings over the next two months and "see what more we can do".

Assembly members urged the government to rapidly adopt its recommendations and "be bold" in dealing with climate risks.

"People are willing to change if educated properly and given the facts," noted Marc Robson, 47, a panel member and smart-meter fitter for British Gas who is now retraining to install electric vehicle charging points.

The assembly, selected to reflect diversity in Britain's demographics and views on climate change, met over a series of weekends from January to May - with the COVID-19 crisis pushing some sessions online - to learn about options to cut emissions.

Their recommendations, including on how to handle the pandemic recovery, aim to help parliament understand which shifts most voters back, and which ideas may need a rethink.

"This report is a striking tribute to the common sense of the British public," said Tom Burke, chairman of independent climate change think-tank E3G.

Panel members said, for instance, that they supported efforts to cut meat and dairy consumption by 20-40% - but the dietary changes needed to be voluntary and achieved through education and government promotion.

They backed energy-efficiency upgrades for homes and new heating technologies, but asked that each house be retrofitted "in one go" to cut disruption for occupants.

Homeowners, depending on where they live and other factors, should be able to choose among different technologies, from heat pumps to hydrogen-powered heat and networked heating systems, as the country moves away from gas-fired boilers, the panel said.

Members did not support limits on travel - by air, road or other means - but preferred more flexible ideas like expanding public transport and taxing frequent and long-distance fliers.

They said sales of vehicles that run on fossil fuels should end earlier than planned - by 2030 to 2035 at the latest - but expected many people would continue to use electric cars.

Philip Dunne, chair of the UK parliament's environmental audit committee, said the assembly's recommendations were particularly useful as policy inputs often came from vested or special interests and activists.

"We rarely receive information from an informed group of the public," he added.

OPEN TO ALL

Rebecca Willis, a Lancaster University professor and one of the experts who helped assembly members understand the options for tackling climate change, said most of their choices were "strongly influenced by people's views on fairness".

"They wanted to make sure policies and strategies didn't disadvantage certain groups," she said, from livestock farmers who might sell less meat, to rural communities with less access to public transport.

"They were keen to make sure the solutions worked for different sorts of people in different areas," she said.

Where the panel members most strongly disagreed with current government policy was on plans to capture climate-changing emissions - from industries and the air - and put them into long-term storage underground.

Some said they saw such technological solutions as "politically more convenient than the behaviour-change options that are needed" and likely to let climate-polluting fossil fuel industries carry on without making needed changes.

"If net zero is meant to be about securing the long-term (and) our children and grandchildren's futures, then this seems like simply pushing the problem under the carpet for others to solve later," one wrote.

Just 22% of assembly members supported using "carbon capture and storage" (CCS) technology with fossil fuel power plants as a source of energy for the country.

CCS is currently a cornerstone of government plans to lower emissions, despite a lack of commercially viable proposals.

Most of the panel preferred to remove carbon from the air by planting or protecting trees, peatlands and other natural systems, which absorb and store it, and using more wood in construction, which locks in emissions.

Nearly four in five members agreed or strongly agreed that the government should use stimulus funds and other COVID-19 recovery efforts to help achieve its binding net-zero goal.

That should include supporting low-carbon industries, and ensuring any money for polluting companies comes with conditions that they should cut emissions - something that has so far largely not happened, analysts say.

"There is an opportunity to change things for the better during this time of adjustment and flux. This is a window that we must use," one assembly member wrote in the report.

Read more:

UK citizens' assembly calls coronavirus a 'test run' for greener lives

UK citizens' assembly backs climate-friendly coronavirus recovery

UK government advised to harness pandemic to speed zero-carbon aims

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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